Modified is one of Australian drag racing's most popular brackets, if not its most diverse.
There are three popular chassis configurations (rear engine dragster, front engine dragster and altered) and most can be found with either a small block or big block Chev between the rails.
But in this ocean of tried-and-tested consistency, there are islands of exotic beasts – where Brendon Luke's Procharged Mopar-powered Fiat Topolino belongs.
The Topolino is the result of imagination gone wild. Luke set his mind on the craziest car he could conceivably own and run in Modified and this was the result.
“Ever since I had my last altered ten years ago I have been thinking about what the ultimate version would be,” he said. “I didn't want another Bantam, I've already done that, but I've always liked the Topolinos. I acquired the chassis and the body about four years ago and went from there.”
Prolific Sydney chassis builder Richard Botica built the car with no customer as such, just with the intention of selling it. Pro Slammer racer Mark Hinchelwood was originally interested in the car, but when Luke travelled to view the altered with fellow Sydney Modified racer Andrew Musgrave, it struck a chord.
“I said to Mark 'if you don't buy it, I think I will,'” Luke said.
The wild altered in his imagination was beginning to materialise.
As a keen bracket racer, Luke wanted the altered to be quick, but also easy to maintain between rounds. Following the lead of the NHRA's Top Dragster teams, who run low sixes but can also be back on the start line ten minutes after a pass, he thought big cubes and nitrous would be the way to go at first. A crank was ordered that would allow for the motor to exceed 600 cubic inches.
But in the NHRA trends began to change. Prochargers suddenly gained popularity. While they look similar to a turbocharger externally, a Procharger is driven off the crank like a supercharger. The pulley rotates a series of gears that in turn spin an impeller to draw air into the motor.
“All the Americans started heading in the Procharger direction and we followed,” Luke said.
Luke is a dyed-in-the-wool Mopar cult member and wanted his dream car to represent that fandom. He went for an Indy Maxx aluminium block with Predator wedge cylinder heads. The motor uses 2.5 inch titanium valves, Manton pushrods, a Bryant crank, MGP aluminium rods and Diamond pistons. The 604 cubic inches are somewhat overkill, owing to the original plan for nitrous, but equipped with the blow- through F1 X-12 Procharger it has become a torque monster. BK Race Engines put together the whole combo.
“It actually broke BK's dyno when we tried to measure the power,” Luke said. “The dyno peaked out at 1700 horsepower. We estimate it would have made 1850 horsepower on 15 pounds of boost. I imagine it will be well over 2000 once we put another 10% overdrive in it.”
All of this happened over the course of years mind you, as Luke handled some 'real world' business first, like building a house. He had the time.
Modified has been a familiar place for Luke. He was into his Mopar street cars through the 90s and early 2000s, until he met Modified racer Peter Brown while working at Fairfax as a printer. Brown introduced Luke to the fun of high speed bracket racing.
Luke started in a rear engine dragster, before moving on to a Bantam altered. He sold the altered and made way for a front engine dragster, which used the engine from his first race car.
“Since the track opened in Sydney, Modified has been it,” he said. “(The bracket) is a good way to put a lot of horsepower in a car that doesn't weigh much and goes real fast.”
And going real fast is now the aim of the game. Fortunately the chassis will be up to the task now and into the future.
“Richard said he wouldn't have done anything different to fit me in this chassis, so it was meant for me,” Luke said.
“The chassis is actually Top Alcohol spec, the whole chassis, so it will handle more power than I will throw at it. Until maybe a nitro Hemi pops up? That's probably delusional but you never know. If you said 10 years ago I would have this car, I would have said the same thing.”
When Luke revealed the car ready for licensing and testing, he had visualised the run a thousand times before in his head.
“The fastest I had been before is 174mph and this thing does 172mph to half track,” he said. “It was a huge step up.”
The car was set up very rich and safe to start with, but it still had plenty enough power to push Luke back in the seat.
“It was a shock when it launched and it kept pulling, it was a pretty good feeling,” he said. “It was pretty dialled in straight away to be honest. It has a lot of timing out of it still for a good second and a half.
“I was just trying to get my head around actually driving it. I had been thinking about it for five years so I think I was prepared. It was a good shock.”
There were some initially teething issues with the car, Luke admits.
“Mainly my stuff ups. I was just trying to get my head around the new system. The major one was the fuel shut off diversion wasn't hooked up properly, which was my doing, and that didn't let it run properly.
“In Queensland I backfired the intake (below) because I hit the limiter with an overzealous right foot. I can't complain too much for a new car.”
So far, even with a cautious 15 pounds of boost, Luke has already hit a best of 6.49/207mph, making the Fiat Topolino the quickest Procharged car in the country (curiously enough, Fiat and Chrysler merged in 2014, perhaps you could stretch the argument that this now qualifies as all-Mopar).
“With another 10% overdrive in it it should go 6.1s at 215-218mph. The convertor and everything were made for more boost, so that was always our plan.
“The car has only done 12 full runs and we are learning how these Procharger things work. This is the first time I have even had a data logger, so it is good to actually know what is going in with the motor rather than guessing.”
Outright performance is one thing, reliability is another. Racers in Modified know that sometimes there is barely enough time to pack the chutes and refuel before you are required back in the staging lanes.
To cope with running hot, Luke equipped the altered with a full coolant system on it, which means in addition to the methanol fuel it can be harder to warm up than cool down. The Turbo 400 Pro Trans two speed transmission was designed with its large capacity in mind, keeping cool for run after run, while the FTI convertor is what the Top Dragster teams in the USA run. There is even a compressor on board to help pump up the tyres on the car between passes.
“I could honestly drive it to the start line and drive it back. I know my crew situation might be lacking at times, I planned the build so myself and my wife Cherie could run the car with just the two of us. If it ever ran a five, I think I would drive it back, just to prove you could. But we are a little bit off that yet!
“Comp is out of the question with too many cubic inches, so we always plan to play in Modified.”
With this savage altered residing in the shed at home, Luke said it is a nice feeling to be able to see the physical representation of his drag racing dream.
“She is all together now and we are very happy with the way it turned out. It is good when the vision becomes reality. I can go and look at it any time I want now. It came together exactly like the picture in my head. I couldn't do it without my wife Cherie who shares my obsession - and her business Affordable Mortgage Solutions is my major sponsor!”
You can expect to find this awesome car at most Sydney events and perhaps a sprinkling of Willowbank events as well.
“Travelling is hard with my work, but I would love to get back to Perth one day or head to Hidden Valley. For now Sydney and Willowbank will be in it, I plan on running the Track Championship and the big meets.”